“I never thought of myself as a businessman, let alone an entrepreneur. Yet in order to control my own life in broadcasting, I had to build my own thing." - Leo Laporte
Understanding the 21st Century
If anyone understands the 21st century, it is Leo Laporte. Leo is a radio personality, an Emmy award-winning TV host, technology guru, author of 13 books, and he even studied Chinese history at Yale. However, Leo had experience in 2004 that made him even more qualified to understand the economic realities of 21st century, he lost his job. The story of how Leo responded to this challenge is an example of how people can solve 21st century problems by using 21st century tools, instead of succumbing to the temptation to do things the way they have always been done. Leo was able to change the trajectory of his career by harnessing technology and his broadcasting experience to unleash the power of his own creativity. Moreover, Leo's story is a case study about being successful on your own terms, not your employer's.
The Tech TV Years
From 1998 to 2004, Leo served as the patriarch of the on-air talent at a cable channel based in San Francisco called TechTV. The channel broadcasted programming aimed at new computer users, investors, and Silicon Valley insiders at a time when the Internet and computers were becoming more commonplace. TechTV was unique in the landscape of cable television because the network assumed that its audience was already smart enough to understand the channel's content. Leo came to TechTV with a deep background in covering technology on radio programs, television, and the Internet. Over the course of his career, Leo combined his broadcasting career with his interest in technology. While other radio hosts where spinning records, Leo was writing software technology almanacs. Due to his decades of experience, Leo was tapped to host two shows on TechTV - Call for Help and The Screen Savers. Viewers gravitated to Leo because he was able to make learning about technology fun and accessible with his on-air shenanigans. At its height, TechTV was available in 40 million American homes and 70 countries.
In 2004, TechTV's parent company, Vulcan Programming Inc, put TechTV up for sale. According to New York Times columnist David Pogue, TechTV struggled to get into the lineup of cable and satellite providers. However, TechTV was starting to build a loyal following and its tech savvy audience was attractive niche for advertisers. In 2004, TechTV acquired by Comcast, which decided to merge TechTV with its video game channel, G4. Comcast marketed the new channel, G4TechTV, as "the one and only network that is plugged into every dimension of games, gear, gadgets, and gigabytes." The merger was a disaster. Comcast started by eliminating 285 TechTV staffers and moving the network from San Francisco to LA. Comcast's fatal mistake was gradually phasing out TechTV's experienced on- air talent in search of hosts who could relate to G4TechTV's new target market, young male video gamers. One disappointed fan wrote on a G4 message board that, "These fools would let an aging Robin Williams go to bring in Carrot Top. We can only hope that these short-sighted morons realize the errors of their ways and bring back Leo Laporte before the ratings take a nose-dive to the point where they decide to cancel G4TechTV altogether."
The Power of Creative Expression
After Leo left TechTV, he posted a recording of a discussion at a Macworld conference on his blog, not intending it to become a podcast. The post got so many hits, Leo started posting on a regular basis. These posts gradually evolved into a network of podcasts called This Week in Tech (TWiT). Leo was able to leverage his experience as a radio host; his expertise in technology, and a dream-team network of friends/former colleagues to create content that was more rewarding (both personally and financially) than anything he worked on at TechTV. In an interview with The New York Times, Leo said that “It’s not as if I had a plan for all this. It just kind of happened. It was almost as if we had this audience that was waiting for the medium to come along.” Leo’s online presence gives him unique competitive advantages and a global reach that traditional broadcast networks will never be able to match:
- In the new media, the goal isn't to advertise to as many people as possible. The goal is to advertise to the right people. According to the aforementioned article published in The New York Times on December 26, 2010, "Advertisers, especially technology companies, appreciate Mr. Laporte’s reach. Mark McCrery, chief executive of Podtrac, which measures podcast audiences and sells advertising, said TWIT’s advertising revenue doubled in each of the last two years and was expected to total $4 million to $5 million for 2010. Starting at $40 per thousand listeners, TWIT’s ad rates are among the highest in American pod-casting and are considerably higher than commercial broadcasting rates, which are typically $5 to $15 per thousand listeners."
- Leo and his co-hosts don't take traditional commercial breaks; they casually weave promotions for tech products into each of their shows. They promote products that they actually use in their personal lives, products like Audible audio books, Carbonite online backup, and Gazelle's recycling service for electronics. Leo and his co-hosts aren't merely paid pitchmen for these products; they are evangelists for these products. This makes the advertisements feel more genuine and meaningful.
- If the old media is passive, then the new media is interactive. Watching TV used to be extremely passive, you would just sit on your couch and stare. Today, audiences are encouraged to interact with their favorite program by voting for the next American Idol or tweeting their favorite star. TWIT takes this to another level. All of TWIT's podcasts feature a live chat room where audience members around the world can participate in the show by chatting with the host and serving as ad-hoc researchers. It is the global 21st century version of a Greek chorus.